Pope Francis asks forgiveness for Church's 'sins and failings' during Rwandan genocide

Pope Francis formally apologized to Rwanda for the role Catholic clergy played in attacks, saying he hoped to begin a new chapter in the Church's relationship with the government and its people.

Tony Gentile/ Reuters
Pope Francis poses with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and his wife Jeannette during a private meeting at the Vatican on March 20, 2017.

Pope Francis issued an apology to Rwanda on Monday for the "sins and failings of the Church" during the nation's 1994 genocide, saying he hoped the belated sentiment might help heal wounds as the country moves forward.

During the 100-day-long genocide, Hutu extremists murdered some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Some of those responsible for the slayings were priests, nuns, and other members of the Roman Catholic clergy, survivors say. Others were slaughtered in the churches where they had hidden from the brutality, including 2,000 who died when a Catholic priest ordered bulldozers to level a church.

During a meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Pope Francis for the first time blatantly acknowledged that Catholic officials have "succumbed to hatred and violence, betraying their own evangelical mission" during the genocide, according to a statement from the Vatican.

But the Rwandan government suggested that the apology was not enough, and that local clergy have continued to play a role by sheltering those complicit or responsible for the killings. The government has also accused the Church of protecting clergy who moved to Europe.

"Today, genocide denial and trivialisation continue to flourish in certain groups within the Church and genocide suspects have been shielded from justice within Catholic institutions," Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement.

Francis has emphasized openness and innovation, sometimes wading into more political topics than his predecessors. His election in 2013 elated many Catholics in Africa and South America, who hoped the Argentine pope would place more of an emphasis on developing nations and the challenges Catholics face there.  

In the years following the genocide, St. John Paul II refused to let the church shelter the blame. "The church in itself cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of its members who have acted against evangelical law," he wrote in a letter to Rwandan officials.

The pope's apology does follow one issued by Rwanda's Catholic bishops last year, which acknowledged "all the wrongs the church committed." Rwandan officials said that, too, fell short.

"I don't understand why the pope would apologize for sexual offenses, whether it is in the US, Ireland or Australia, but cannot apologize for the role of the church in the genocide that happened here," Mr. Kagame said last year.

On Monday, he publicly responded to the pope with a tweet, saying "a new chapter in relations" had begun with the apology.

That sentiment echoes Francis' wishes, according to the Vatican, which said the Pope "expressed the desire that this humble recognition of the failings of that period, which, unfortunately, disfigured the face of the Church, may contribute to a 'purification of memory' and may promote, in hope and renewed trust, a future of peace."

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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